Four of a Kind
(by Rick Reilly, from CNN Sports Illustrated, 9/19/01)
The huge rugby player, the former high school football star and the onetime college baseball player were in first class, the former national judo champ was in coach. On the morning of Sept. 11, at 32,000 feet, those four men teamed up to sacrifice their lives for those of perhaps thousands of others.
Probably about an hour into United Flight 93's scheduled trip from Newark to San Francisco, the 38 passengers aboard the Boeing 757 realized they were being hijacked. The terrorists commandeered the cockpit, and the passengers were herded to the back of the plane.
Shoved together were four remarkable men who didn't much like being shoved around. One was publicist Mark Bingham, 31, who helped Cal win the 1991 and '93 national collegiate rugby championships. He was a surfer, and in July he was carried on the horns of a bull in Pamplona. Six-foot-five, rowdy and fearless, he once wrestled a gun from a mugger's hand late at night on a San Francisco street.
One was medical research company executive Tom Burnett, 38, the standout quarterback for Jefferson High in Bloomington, Minn., when the team went to the division championship game in 1980. That team rallied around Burnett every time it was in trouble.
One was businessman Jeremy Glick, 31, 6'2" and muscular, the 1993 collegiate judo champ in the 220-pound class from the University of Rochester (N.Y.), a national-caliber wrestler at Saddle River (N.J.) Day School and an all-state soccer player. [He was also a rugby player. Click here. - Wes] "As long as I've known him," says his wife, Lyz, "he was the kind of man who never tried to be the hero -- but always was."
One was 32-year-old sales account manager Todd Beamer, who played mostly third base and shortstop in three seasons for Wheaton (Ill.) College.
The rugby player picked up an AirFone and called his mother, Alice Hoglan, in Sacramento to tell her he loved her. The judo champ called Lyz at her parents' house in Windham, N.Y., to say goodbye to her and their 12-week-old daughter, Emmy. But in the calls the quarterback made to his wife, Deena, in San Ramon, Calif., and in the conversation the baseball player had with a GTE operator, the men made it clear that they'd found out that two other hijacked planes had cleaved the World Trade Center towers.
The pieces of the puzzle started to fit. Somewhere near Cleveland the passengers on Flight 93 had felt the plane take a hard turn south. They were now on course for Washington, D.C. Senator Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) believes the plane might have been headed for the Capitol. Beamer, Bingham, Burnett and Glick must have realized their jet was a guided missile.
The four apparently came up with a plan. Burnett told his wife, "I know we're going to die. Some of us are going to do something about it." He wanted to rush the hijackers.
Nobody alive is sure about what happened next, but there's good reason to believe that the four stormed the cockpit. Flight 93 never made it to Washington. Instead, it dived into a field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. All passengers and crew perished. Nobody on the ground was killed.
In the heart of San Francisco's largest gay neighborhood, a makeshift memorial grew, bouquet by bouquet, to the rugby player who was unafraid. Yeah, Bingham was gay.
In Windham, a peace grew inside Lyz Glick. "I think God had this larger purpose for him," she said. "He was supposed to fly out the night before, but couldn't. I had Emmy one month early, so Jeremy got to see her. You can't tell me God isn't at work there."
In Cranbury, N.J., a baby grew in Lisa Beamer, Todd's wife, their third child. Hearing the report last Friday of her husband's heroics, Lisa said, "made my life worth living again."
In Washington, a movement grew in Congress to give the four men the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can receive.
At a time like this, sports are trivial. But what the best athletes can do -- keep their composure amid chaos, form a plan when all seems lost and find the guts to carry it out -- may be why the Capitol isn't a charcoal pit.
My 26-year-old niece, Jessica Robinson, works for Congressman Lane Evans (D., Ill.). Jessica was in the Capitol that morning. This Christmas I'll get to see her smiling face.
I'm glad there were four guys up there I could count on.